Trathen’s – department store shopping in Nelson
The sophistication of department store shopping was introduced to Nelson by the Trathen family, whose flagship building with high, art deco windows stood tall in central Trafalgar Street from 1922 until its demolition in 2016.
The family-run store was established in 1904 by Benjamin Trathen (born 1874), whose draper and department store experience in his home country Australia, convinced him to open his own department store. Moving to New Zealand and settling in Nelson in 1904 Ben opened a drapery store, Messers Trathen and Co., in Richmond. Less than a month later he relocated to Bridge Street, Nelson, later extending into a neighbouring store.
Disaster struck in May 1907 when a fire destroyed one of the two Trathen’s shops and badly damaged the other.1 In 1915 Trathen & Co. moved to premises at 191 Trafalgar Street, a site previously occupied by the Bird Butchery.
There, in April 1917, Trathen’s narrowly missed being badly damaged by a fire which destroyed a neighbouring business.2 However, a third fire, in January 1920, completely destroyed the wooden Trathen’s building and another two businesses.3
Ben Trathen worked with Nelson architect Arthur Griffin, who had designed the granite Church Steps and numerous commercial buildings and homes still standing in the city today, to design a three storey department store on his Trafalgar Street site.
The brick building, with a modern, spacious and uncluttered interior designed to encourage shopping and leisure, opened two years later at 189-195 Trafalgar Street on 5 April 1922.4 Finally the entire Trathen’s business was contained under one roof. On the ground floor were six departments (Manchester, Dress, Ladies’ Underwear, Men’s, Showroom and Haberdashery), and on the second floor a dressmaker, milliner and tailor. In time an elegant tearoom opened on the street-side of the second floor. Situated behind the building’s magnificent column-flanked arched window, the tearoom was run for many years by Ben’s wife, a former staff member, Ellen (Nell) Voss Smith. The building’s top floor was used for storage and workspace for window dressing and display staff.
In 1929 the building was damaged in the 7.8 magnitude Murchison earthquake. The front façade shook and leaned one metre out into the street, breaking off the top decorative concrete parapet. Fortunately another shock shook the façade back into place before it could collapse onto the street. Expensive repairs were required: the remaining damaged parapet was removed and the frontage was tied to a concrete wall eight metres back inside the building. Further repairs were carried out following the Inangahua earthquake in 1968.
From 1933 no Christmas at Trathen’s was complete without the appearance of Father Christmas and the intricate Magic Caves and Pixie Towns of photographer F.N. Jones. The store and its staff also made regular appearances at city events and parades, and staff formed sports teams, including cricket and hockey.
The Trathen’s business passed from father to sons Geoff and Ron in 1942 following Ben Trathen’s death. The brothers bought the business and upon Ron’s death in 1950, Geoff and Esther Trathen bought the Trathen’s building and introduced their three sons, Ben (jnr), John and David, into the business.
The next major upgrade and redevelopment of the store was in 1962.5 The new-look shop boasted several innovations for Nelson, including infrared heating and a pre-stress, pre-cast mezzanine floor, perfect for showcasing fashion parades through the 1960s-1980s. The second floor was opened up for a showroom and millinery department, offices, powder room and staff cafeteria.
When Geoff Trathen died in 1974 the business and other Trathen-owned premises continued to be run by his sons. But in 1988 the brothers’ made the difficult decision to close Trathen’s, although the name lived on for several years in other family businesses, including Trathen’s Fabrics.
One of the major considerations was the building’s failure to meet building standards. Extensive strengthening with steel beams in 1989 saw the ground floor developed into three retail spaces. However, the second and third floors were closed off and never used again.
In 1991 the building was bought by Ben and Margaret Trathen. However, following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, concerns were again raised about its seismic safety, which was deemed to be just six percent of the required code.6 The concerns included the danger of its unreinforced masonry over three storeys, its connection to two smaller buildings by party walls, and that it not only towered over surrounding buildings but also sat in the middle of one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
After much consideration and consultation,7 the family announced in 2015 that work to bring the building up to current seismic standards was not financially or commercially feasible and that it intended to demolish the category B heritage building.8 In its place would be built a two-storey building incorporating retail spaces and a second floor café/restaurant.9
The iconic Trathen’s windows were offered for sale10 but as demolition work began in June 2016,11 it was announced that some of the stained glass window panes had been donated to the Nelson Provincial Museum.12
2016 (updated 2021)
Read the full story: Trathen, B. & Trathen-Ahnfeldt, M. (2015) Trathen’s – The Building, The Family & The Business [PDF]
Sources used in this story
- Two Shops Destroyed (1907, May 14) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2.
- A Disastrous Fire (1917, March 28) Colonist, , p.4.
- Disastrous Fire Central Trafalgar Street (1920, January 3) Colonist, p.4.
- Messers Trathen and Co.’s New Premises (1922, April 4) Nelson Evening Mail, p.5.
- [Trathens] (1962, October 23), Nelson Evening Mail, p.?
- Moore, B. (2015, January 10) To Rebuild or Demolish for Trathen’s Building Owners?’, Bill Nelson Mail on Stuff:
- Moore, B. (2015, August 13) Trathen’s Building Decision Not Far Off. Nelson Mail, on Stuff:
- Bradley-Smith, A, (2015, October 15) Nelson Community Supports Trathen Building’s Demolition. Nelson Mail, on Stuff.
- Bradley-Smith, A, (2015, October 20) Nelson’s Ornate Trathen’s Building To Be Replaced With Multi Million-Dollar Complex. Nelson Mail, on Stuff:
- Leov, T. (2016, May 13) Iconic Nelson Building Trathen’s Windows For Sale. Nelson Mail, on Stuff:
- Trathen, B. & Trathen-Ahnfeldt, M. (2015) Trathen’s – The Building, The Family & The Business. [Much of the detail contained in this story is courtesy of a report to the Nelson City Council]
- Leov, T. (2016, June 15) Trathen Properties Gift Windows to Nelson Provincial Museum. Nelson Mail on Stuff.
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Further sources - Trathens Store
- Trathen, B. & Trathen-Ahnfeldt, M. (2015) Trathen’s – The Building, The Family & The Business [PDF] [Much of the detail contained in this story is courtesy of a report to the Nelson City Council]
- Leov, T. (2016, July 29) Nelson's iconic Trathen's building demolished after almost 100 years. Nelson Mail, on Stuff:
- Nelson Provincial Museum (2015, August 21) Facebook post [historic images of Trathens']